Friday, December 30, 2011

5 Awesome Wine Labels

Just a fun post for New Year's Eve. I've come across some pretty handsome wine labels this year, and I'm really digging the more avant-garde labels that wineries are putting out. Please add your favorite wine labels to the list—I'd love to see them. It's always a pleasure to get a glimpse of a winemaker or winery's personality:

Brooks Winery's "Runaway White" —This wine label features the forlorn face of a teenage waif, and what's with the freaky chalice? It makes me think that the runaway joined a cult and now subsists on human blood, perhaps with false hopes of immortality planted by the cult leader. But what do I know?

Love & Squalor Winery's "Fancy Pants" — Darn cute and clearly well read, this wine has its priorities straight. I don't dry my clothes on a clothes line, but this wine makes me feel good about choosing the travel-writing life of two-figure paychecks and good wine.

Zombie Cellar's "Zombie Zin" — What can I say, I'm a sucker for zombies. 100% Grade A awesome.

J. Christopher's "Cristo Irresisto" - I really like this label both because its elegant and it reminds me of a statue I saw in a cemetery outside of Piran, Slovenia. The photo doesn't do it justice, but the statue immediately evoked the feeling of having lost the love of one's life. Ouch. A tragic but beautiful wine label.

Brook's Winery Sangiovese — I wasn't expecting to feature two labels by one winery, but Brooks's labels aren't afraid to be different (as you can see, they even stick dissimilar wine labels on their own bottles). This tranquil wine label reminds me of Oregon's cherry blossom season. I find it very calming... soothing... Totally unlike this terrible wine label I found the other day:

What a gimmick...

Happy New Year's!

Can't wait to share more travel stories over great wines in 2012!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Wine Tasting at Ščurek Winery in Slovenia’s Goriska Brda Wine Region

From the Awesome Wine Tasting and Review Department

Slovenia’s Goriska Brda is a hidden wine region: neighboring Friuli gets all the press. Yet, when I went wine tasting, it was impossible to tell where Goriska Brda ended and Friuli began. The boundary between Slovenia and Italy was determined, somewhat arbitrarily, by pissed off partisan fighters at the end of World War II, and, today, Italy and Slovenia zigzag together across the beautiful rolling hills of vineyards. Goriska Brda and Friuli are two puzzle pieces locked together.

I visited Ščurek winery on the advice of Šime, chef and sommelier at Gastronomadi Klub in Zagreb, Croatia, where I’d taken a cooking class. The winery had a uniquely young and rebellious ambiance. In the entrance, there was a photo of winemaker Tomaz Ščurek, reclined, wearing skateshoes and using a case of wine as an ottoman. In the cellar, the heads of several wine barrels featured paintings by artists and friends from all over the world, many reminding me of the vibrant works of San Francisco’s street artists. The winery gave off a rock’n’roll attitude. It made me think of contemporary winemakers Adrianna Occhipinti, Charles Smith, and Christian Tietje. Would the wines taste rebellious, too?

Tomaz was busy working late in the cellar when I arrived, and I waited while he change out of his grape-stained clothes. That done, he took me into the family’s original wine cellar, which looked like an 18th century farmhouse, except all of the furniture had been replaced with wine barrels.

“We experimented with bottling in 1989,” said Tomaz, “and the first real bottling was in 1991. However, we have tax documents that show the family was making wine back to 1853."

Tomaz was quick to point out that the tax documents were written in multiple languages in the 1800s. The region’s identity was clearly multifaceted even then, and Goriska Brda has changed nationalities five times in the last 150 years. It was good to see that Tomaz and his family didn’t suffer from a similar lost of identity.

“This wine cellar is probably older than the state of Oregon,” he added.

We went into the wine tasting room, which had giant windows that looked out onto the valley and its vineyards, the rich yellow and orange foliage in full effect. The first wine I tasted was the 2010 Strune Belo (belo = white). Strune is a budget friendly line of wines that begins at 4.50 a bottle. The 2010 Strune Belo had a nice floral and fruity nose and was smooth in the mouth. It wouldn’t have been anything special if it weren’t for the price. At 4.50 a bottle, it was an outstanding value.

Next came the 2010 Rumera Rebula, made of 100% rebula. This white grape is widely planted in Goriska Brda as well as Friuli, where it is known as ribolla gialla, and it is rarely found elsewhere. It has an ancient history but was hardly planted twenty years ago; the resurgence it is experiencing today is greatly due to its ability to age well. Ščurek’s medium-bodied Rumera Rebula wasn’t my style. It had some round yellow fruit, but I found a nutty flavor that was too pervasive and thought that the wine finished hard. Likely, it needed to age another few years. I was beginning to worry that I might not be a fan of Ščurek’s wines.

Then came the 2009 Pinot Gris (Sivi Pinot), a delicious summer wine—it had a striking copper color in the glass and I got a lot of ripe fruit on the nose. My palate really freaked when I tried the 2009 Stara Brajda Belo. As the website says, it is made with “60% Rebula, 20% Pikolit, 20% Pika and some Glera, Tržarka and Malvasia,” and I got aromas of tropical fruit, sage, cashews, and wild chamomile. The wine was full bodied. The acidity almost prickled my tongue, and I could tell that this would smooth out in a few years, allowing complex flavors to develop and emerge.

The last white I tried was the 2009 Dugo, comprised of 50% rebula, 25% chardonnay, and 25% pinot blanc. It deserved to be last because it tasted like royalty. It was rich with oak and vanilla nuances, and it had great depth. I tasted butterscotch candy and dried flowers. I could have sat with the bottle for the whole night writing out descriptions and inspirations. In general, I really enjoyed Ščurek’s blended wines over the varietals because they displayed flavors that totally shocked me: I believe that these wines cannot be produced anywhere else on earth than Goriska Brda.

In general, winemakers in the Goriska Brda region make mostly white wines, however, that doesn’t mean that the reds should be discredited. On the contrary, the 2006 Pinot Noir (Modri Pinot) was one of my favorite wines during the tasting. Very elegant, with aromas of cloves and plums, it was light bodied and sleek. I tasted plum, ripe cherry, and cedarwood, and it was very well balanced.

Next I tried a blend of merlot (75%) and cabernet sauvignon (15%) that was part of the winery’s “Up” line. The 2006 Up had aromas of blackberries and plums, and I tasted lots of fruit, such as blackberry jam, and it had cola notes. The finish was long with a powerful pepperiness. For all its strength, the wine was still friendly.

Ščurek tasting room is open year round for wine tasting. Appointments are necessary. Closed Sundays. Email Tomaz at a few days in advance. A wine tasting costs 7, or you can have it with local meats and cheeses for 15.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Tis the Season for Olio Nuovo - A Wine Dinner with 2011 James Beard Finalist Cathy Whims

I got an unexpected invite to Nostrana Restaurant's Olio Nuovo Wine Dinner last week, and this surprise was followed by another: Olio Nuovo, literally "new oil," turns out to be olive oil par excellence. Having never even heard of olio nuovo before, I had to be enlightened. Olive Oil Sommelier Jeff Bergman explained that olio nuovo is olive oil that was pressed less than 90 days ago. Just like novello or beaujolais wine, young olive oil tastes astonishingly fresh. Most olive oil producers complete their first harvest, commonly known as the green harvest, at the end of September, and right now is the time for olio nuovo.

Cathy Whims, Nostrana owner and James Beard Best Chef 2011 Finalist, worked with Jeff to create a three-way pairing (I still can't decide if this term is an oxymoron). Each course featured an Italian dish, a new olive oil, and a wine. The first course was one of my favorites: beef carpaccio with fried capers, celery leaves, and shaved parmigiano topped with Frescobaldi's "Laudemio First Pressing" olive oil. This was paired with Kante's NV "KK" Brut. The dish was refreshing; the sweet Karst beef was given great texture by the fried capers and celery leaves; the Frescobaldi olive oil, which is filtered, tasted grassy and slightly of lemon. Unlike regular carpaccio, this carpaccio writhed in oil. Oil dripped from each forkful. I could feel the health benefits. My skin felt better—my hair shiner. The Kante KK Brut tasted of almonds, caramel, and toast.

"We all drank rancid oil 25 years ago," said Jeff. "Freshness wasn't valued the way it is today. Those were the days when a farmer would put his nets under the tree then back his truck into the tree. Maybe five days later he'd take the olives to the cooperative for pressing, and by then they'd be dried up and in terrible shape." A few years ago, when I spoke with Raffaele Cazzetta, owner of Cazzetta Olive Oil Factory, he explained that the flavor of the olive drastically changes if it isn't processed within two hours of picking. The longer the olive stays on the ground, the more acidic it becomes, and better olive oils are less acidic (the quality label, extra virgin, is partially determined by low acidity). Thanks to technology and awareness, the quality of olive oil is easy to control. "Now producers focus on finessing," said Jeff.

The next course was a fried, cake-like version of ribollita, which we doused in Capezzana's Olio Nuovo 2011 from Tuscany and paired with Capezzana's 2008 "Barco Reale di Carmignano." Also known as third-day ribollita, the ribollita cake was crunchy on the outside but moist and soupy on the inside. If you make ribollita soup at home and you ever find that it's become too thick, try scooping it into cakes and frying it: the texture is amazing.

I think I used half a bottle of Capezzana's olive oil. It was spicy, grassy, and nutty, and neither I nor the bread in the ribollita could reach our saturation. Grassiness is definitely the most discernible characteristic of olio nuovo—just like freshly cut grass. The 2008 "Barco Reale di Carmignano" was also excellent. Made of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, and canaiolo, the wine had aromas of plum and lavender. I tasted dark fruit, cedar, and a controlled, pleasant barnyardiness. I liked it because it was a stolid wine, capable of pairing with hearty food. It retails around $14.

The main course was grilled calamari with chickpeas, fennel, lemon, and Tremiti olives, topped with Gianfranco Becchina's Olio Verde and paired with Occhipinti's 2010 "SP68." The Gianfranco Becchina Olio Verde is unfiltered and made from just one type of olive: Nocellara del Belice. Again, there was a hyper-real spiciness and grassiness.

Chef Cathy Whims was particularly excited about Occhipinti winery, and she explained that the winemaker, Arianna Occhipinti, began her winemaking career around age 19. Today, Arianna makes wines with biodynamic farming practices and without adding sulfites. The purity of the SP68 was its foremost quality. It was made of Nero D'Avola and Frappato (another native Sicilian grape), and I was surprised by how light it was; I wouldn't have guessed it had Nero D'Avola in it. It tasted fresh and fruity with aromas of fennel, lemon, and celery. Because it tasted brand new, it paired well with the new olive oil. However, while the SP68 seemed like a fine wine, I couldn't see how it would make a winemaker famous. Then Cathy brought out Occhipinti's 2009 "Il Frappato." This wine shocked me, and there's no other way to say it than that it tasted alive. Sort of a corpulent pinot noir, Il Frappato had aromas of fresh raspberries, and I tasted red fruit and candy.

The wine dinner concluded with an olive oil torta with poached apricots and citrus zests and almond cream paired with the 2007 La Stoppa "Vigna del Volta" Malvasia di Candia Passito made by winemaker Elena Pantaleoni. The torta made using Frescobaldi's "Laudemio" and was very light, as was the passito, which tasted of apricots and honey.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How to Read a Croatian Wine Label

The first Croatian wine label that I saw might as well have been on a bottle of vodka. I couldn't even distinguish the name of the winery from the name of the grape varieties on the wine label. Fortunately, Sasha Lusic, owner of D'Vino wine bar in Dubrovnik and one of the funniest guys I met on my five-week press trip, took a minute to show me how to read a Croatian wine label.

Every Croatian wine label will display the wine's quality level. This is similar to Italy's IGT, DOC, and DOCG quality rankings. Croatia's wine quality rankings are:

Vrhunsko - "top quality wine"
Kvalitetno - "quality wine"
Stolno - "table wine"

These rankings are generally helpful, but some great wines are labeled stolno, or table wine. "You have Frano Miloš," explained Sasha, "who's 2004 Stagnum won a Bronze at the Decanter World Wine Awards. The government only labeled his wine stolne, but he's winning awards with that particular wine."

The next thing to look for is the grape name, which is almost always proudly displayed in large letters on the label. Croatia's popular grapes include:

Croatian White Grapes:

Pinot Sivi (Pinot Gris)
Pinot Bijelo (Pinot Blanc)

Croatian Red Grapes:

Cabernet Sauvignon
Pinot Crni (Pinot Noir)
Plavac Mali (relative of Zinfandel)

However, not every label features a grape name, especially in the case of blended wines, and sometimes the growing region is so famous that it takes the place of the grape name. Of course, many labels list both the grape name and the growing region. The wine label to the right features a wine from the famous Dingac region, where some of Croatia's best red wines are made with the Plavac Mali grape.

Croatia has a large number of wine producing regions, and the one's I came across the most during my trip were:

the island of Korcula
the island Krk

Interestingly, many wine labels do not prominently display the name of the winery. The above wine is made by Milicic winery, and the name is half obscured by the growing region. This isn't the case withe label below:

This label below features a wine produced by one of the few cooperatives that still operate in Croatia. For this reason, the winery is simply represented by the name of the town in which the cooperative operates: Cara.

The word "vinogorje" means vineyard grape-growing region, and this label shows that the Posip grapes were grown on the island of Korcula.

These are the most important aspects of a Croatian wine label. To recap, look for quality of the wine, the grape, and the growing region, and whatever word is left on the label is most likely the name of the winery. If you get this down, the label below should pose no problems:

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Ravenous Traveler Hits A Wall of White Truffles in Istria, Croatia

It was a day I'd waited for my entire life: The day I got to eat (mountains of) fresh white truffle. How did Croatia's white truffles compare to Italy's? Read the latest edition of the Eating the Adriatic Travelogue to find out!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Talking Croatian Wine with Dolores Racic of Vina Milicic Winery

Let's Talk Dingac, Croatian Wine, Donkeys, and Why Tasting Fees Shouldn't Exist

As I transcribe this wine-infused interview, the bus grinds to a halt and the Bosnian border control officers climb on board. The Bosnian border, which claims a brief 12.4 miles of coastline, cuts right through Croatia's otherwise massive and uninterrupted Dalmatian Coast. Token coastline or not, passports are checked and mental borders are rearranged; the Dingac region, possibly Croatia's most important wine-producing region, is just a few miles south. Had things gone the other way when Yugoslavia disintegrated, might I be writing about Bosnia's greatest red wine?

The Dingac region produces mostly red wines made with the plavac mali grape. This wine was iconic of the region even when the region was part of Yugoslavia. Chances are, if you've ever pass through, you've seen the iconic wine label, which features a donkey. Check out these retro Yugoslavian wine labels from 1984 and *shock* 1954:

The Dingac growing region is located on the Peljasac peninsula, and the donkey is the wine's icon because the Peljasac peninsula's primary geographical feature is one giant hill: donkeys were the lucky creatures used to transport the grapes over the hill. The southern, coastal hillside has the ideal conditions for growing grapes: the grapes get sun from above as well as below, the light reflected off of the waves of the Adriatic Sea. This coast side of the hill is Dingac, whereas the inland side of the hill is the Postup growing region and the flat land that leads up to Postup is the Plavac growing region. The slopes in the Dingac region are sometimes so steep that vineyard workers must wear ropes. This handy map that I picked up at D'Vino Wine Bar provides visuals (sorry about all the tasting notes):

"Today, there’s a tunnel that you can drive through," said Dolores, "but the donkey is still featured on many bottles. Dingac is the most important of all nearby regions. Right before you reach Orebic, where the ferries leave for the island Korcula, you’ll see the village of Potomje. Let’s say that this is the hometown of the winemakers who are Dingac masters. The most important grape in the region is plavac mali, and the name means little blue. It's called this because the berries are small and grow in very tight bunches. In the Dingac area you only get ½ kilo of grapes from one plant, and that’s why a Dingac wine is typically full bodied, rich, and spicy. The soil is mostly composed of limestone and it is very hard for the grapes to grow their roots. This makes good wine.

“Dingac wines can be up to 16% of alcohol yet still dry. People don’t believe it, but the wines really are dry, with fruitiness and a very long finish. It really seems to be surprising people [see Wine Enthusiast]. If I tell you that I taste blueberries or raspberries, you might not agree because everyone’s palates are different. Even with all I've said, there’s no guarantee that you’ll like this wine. You might think that I’m talking about fairy tales or something. But it is something that we are very proud of. Even in Yugoslavia it was very important."

M: Do Dingac wines age well?
Dolores: Yes, very well. This wine right here is 2007 and you can drink it now, but it will be even better in five years. And, perhaps, if it stored correctly, Dingac can be aged much longer. It can surprise you.

M: If I just rented a car could I go wine tasting?

Dolores: Yes, there are wineries everywhere. But I have to warn you that if you go there you cannot drink.

M: That’s right. Croatia has a zero alcohol tolerance. You cannot even drink one glass of wine then get behind the wheel. I wish I could get there on this trip!

Dolores: I would like to drive you there! I really want you to go, but I think that my boyfriend is working the night shift and he has the car. I want to take you because I want people to understand that it isn’t all about French and Italian wines—with all due respect—and Croatia is something new. It is the new old world. We’ve had winemaking here from the Illyians and the Greeks.

M: Yeah, it’s similar to Puglia, one of my favorite wine regions, where it’s a new style of wine coming from a very old winemaking region. I love emerging wine regions. We’ve had enough French wine.

"With wine tasting in Dingac in general, do you have to make appointments in advance and are there tasting fees?"

Dolores: Every day except Sunday is like a holiday there—during the summer season. To me, it doesn’t make sense to charge for a sip. At least I hope they don't.

M: I agree. In Napa Valley it’s become a business within a business. They charge a lot just for a small taste.

Dolores: It doesn’t make sense to me because you have to taste it to know what you’re buying.

For more on wine tasting in the Dingac region, check out my list of recommended wineries located at the bottom of this article. If you're in Dubrovnik, definitely stop in and say hello to Dolores. She'll teach you everything you want to know about the local grape scene and her store has one of the best selections of local wines in the city. The shop is right on the main street: Od Sigurate 2, Dubrovnik, Croatia.

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